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  • Writer's pictureBethan Lloyd


Updated: Jul 11, 2022

Viscose is a regenerated cellulose fibre, popular in fashion as a cheaper and more durable

alternative to silk.An Insight into Viscose

If you had asked me before I took a deep dive into sustainable fabric sourcing, I would have said viscose was an environmentally friendly fabric. On the surface, as a plant-based fibre from a regenerative source, it is often publicised as the 'green' option. However, now I would find it hard to recommend. It has an unsavoury history with immensely dangerous chemicals, which can devastate the environment and factory workers.

Viscose is a regenerated cellulose fibre, popular in fashion as a cheaper and more durable

alternative to silk. You will see it in colourful drapey dresses, skirts, and soft blouses on the high street. Viscose is known as rayon in America, although it is just one type of rayon. Other types are modal, lyocell (brand name Tencel), cupro and Triacetate, differing from each other based on the manufacturing process and properties of the fabric. Viscose is the most commonly used, and the Textile Exchange estimated that viscose made up 91% of cellulosic production, only 29% of which was sourced sustainably.

Rayon is derived from cellulose fibre, i.e. wood pulp. Typically, from fast-growing regenerative trees such as eucalyptus, beech, and pine, as well as plants such as bamboo, soy, and sugar cane. This cellulose material is then dissolved in a chemical solution to produce a pulpy viscous substance, which is then spun into fibres that can be made into threads.

A Bit of History

Viscose is the earliest artificial semi-synthetic cellulose fibre. French scientist and industrialist Hilaire de Chardonnet (1839-1924) is credited with inventing the first commercial viscose fibre, marketed as artificial silk. But the fabric was so flammable it was quickly taken off the market until the German Bemberg Company developed a safer process. In 1892, British scientists Charles Frederick Cross, Edward John Bevan, and Clayton Beadle discovered and patented the production process, and by 1905 the first commercial viscose rayon was on the market.

Sordid Past

The production of the viscose has historically used carbon disulphide, a highly toxic chemical of which the medical dangers have been well documented since 1847, ranging from psychological to physical symptoms.

According to Paul D. Blanc, who teaches occupational and environmental medicine at the University of California and wrote Fake Silk: The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon, a factory "put bars on the second story windows because so many workers had a tendency to jump out and kill themselves." Throughout most of the 20th century, viscose rayon manufacturing was inextricably linked to widespread, severe, and often lethal illnesses among those employed in making it. At least 30% suffered from carbon disulphide poisoning, caused by insanity, nerve damage, Parkinson's disease, reproductive harm, and increased risk of heart disease and cancer.

During World War II, traditional supply chains were disrupted the demand for synthetic fibres increased. Nazi Germany responded by supplying companies with political prisoners as forced labourers. Who were made to work in appalling conditions, where workers went blind and died. Suicide attempts were common, along with chemical burns and horrible skin conditions caused by sodium hydroxide. Documented in the memoir of Agnes Humbert, an art historian who was imprisoned for being part of the french resistance and forced to work at Phrix rayon factory in Krefeld.

One of these companies was Lenzing, now a world leader in cellulose fibres and the creator of Tencel and EcoVero. As stated on the company's website -

"Lenzing was chosen as one of the plant sites because the existing pulp plant could be used as a supplier of raw materials. After the expropriation of the Bunzl family, the viscose plant "Zellwolle Lenzing" was built in close vicinity and opened in 1939. Subsequently a women's subcamp of the Mauthausen concentration camp was established in the neighbouring town of Pettighofen. As with countless other forced labourers, the Nazi regime had the concentration camp inmates work at the Lenzing plant under inhuman conditions."

Modern production has moved to China, Indonesia and India, and the rates of injury and disability are unknown.

Environmental Impact

The wood pulp used to make viscose can be sustainably harvested but often contributes to deforestation. According to Canopy Planet, roughly a third come from ancient and endangered forests. Canada's Boreal and temperate rainforests, forests in Indonesia and the Amazon are being logged for next season's fashion and apparel. Not only is the process a chemically intensive manufacturing operation, polluting air and water, but it also wastes approximately 70% of the tree.

The production uses and wastes copious amounts of water and is energy-intensive. Currently, viscose is rarely recycled and while technically biodegradable, doing so releases a high level of toxins into the environment.

More Sustainable Options

Technology has improved, and there is a closed-loop manufacturing process for viscose that can recover most of the carbon disulphide and recycle it, reducing the chemical used. It is also essential to look for sustainably forested sources.

Better alternatives to conventional viscose include; lyocell, modal and Triacetate.

Certifications and organisations to look out for when buying viscose -

Forest Stewardship Council - FSC

Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification - FEFC






Fake Silk: The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon by Paul D. Blanc

The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History by Kassia St Clair

Lenzing Fibers

Changing Markets Dirty Fashion Report

Written by Bethan @ theecostories

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